Hawks’ Jeremy Lin Supports Cincinnati Teenagers in Fight Against Racism, Bullying
It was another busy Saturday night for Jeremy Lin. The Atlanta Hawks guard had dinner plans lined up, and another friend in town to entertain.
But first, he had a stop to make at a P.F. Chang’s restaurant on Ashwood Parkway.
Jeremy could’ve waited until the next day, when the Hawks hosted the Milwaukee Bucks at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, to meet Nathan Stockman and Bobby Jefferson II. But given how hectic game days can get—and how diligent Jeremy is about his routine—he wanted to make sure he got some quality time with the two teenagers from Cincinnati, whose pain and triumph he knew all too well.
“For me, it's a little bit difficult seeing them before or after the game because you can be so focused or fixated, or the game just ended or you're at the arena and there's just so many people and it can get so busy,” Jeremy tells CloseUp360. “So I wanted to really properly meet them and their families, and just have more of a chance to dialogue.”
Nathan and Bobby had plenty to talk about with Jeremy. Though their conversation was casual, with video games and basketball at the fore, the young men were there because of the bigotry and hate they had faced on the court back home—much like the kind that Jeremy had encountered himself on his way to the NBA.
Bobby Jefferson II and Nathan Stockman at P.F. Chang's in Atlanta. (Courtesy of P.F. Chang's)
Nathan and Bobby were more than teammates and classmates at St. Xavier High School, known in Cincinnati as St. X. For two years, from the start of football training camp in June until the end of basketball season in March, they spent almost every day together, forging a friendship as teammates on the gridiron and the hardwood.
“Bobby was kind of a bigger brother to me,” says Nathan, who was a grade below Bobby.
They both knew what it was like to stand out at a predominantly white Catholic school. Nathan was the only Asian-American on the basketball team. His mom, Susan, was adopted at birth from South Korea.
Bobby, meanwhile, was the only African-American on the squad.
Yet, even in Cincinnati, a city that’s come under fire of late for the prevalence of prejudice within its limits, Nathan and Bobby, by and large, had not encountered much overt bigotry while growing up there.
“I would say, I've been a pretty sheltered kid my whole life,” Bobby says.
That bubble began to deflate in December 2017, during a 56-55 win at Oak Hills High School. Whenever Nathan, then a junior, found himself in front of the Oak Hills student section, he could hear unnerving comments coming from a few hecklers in the crowd. Bobby could hear them, too.
You missed your shot because you can’t see, they said. This is the USA. Go back to China.
But officials in the building didn’t pay it much mind. Neither did Nathan.
“I just laughed at them,” he says. “I was like, if you have to go that far just to try to get to my head, that shows a lot of what you are. So I was like, I'm not going to let these few guys just destroy me over what I am. I'm proud of who I am and I'm not going to be ashamed of it ever.”
Bobby and Nathan at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Courtesy of P.F. Chang's)
Then in February 2018, Nathan and Bobby once again found themselves in hostile territory in West Cincinnati. Two weeks after ending a five-year drought in the Greater Catholic League with an overtime buzzer-beater at home against Elder High School, St. X faced a revenge-minded Panthers squad—along with its salty supporters—on the road.
The atmosphere at Elder was tense, even before Nathan and Bobby took the floor with the Bombers. After exiting the tunnel—which both teams shared—Bobby, basketball in hand, heard an unfamiliar voice calling him from behind.
“Move out of the way,” the voice yelled.
“For what?” Bobby replied. He turned around to find a white uniformed police officer.
“I stood my ground and I started laughing because I'm like, this has to be a joke,” Bobby says. “Me and my teammates around me who witnessed it, we all thought it was a joke.”
But to the cop, that response was no laughing matter. As Bobby recalls, the officer then slapped the ball out of his hands and scolded him.
“You should learn a little respect,” the policeman said condescendingly. “I know it's hard for you, though.”
“When that happened, I kind of looked around,” Nathan says. “I was like, does anyone else see this? Because I see it all over social media. I couldn't believe my eyes when it happened in front of me, and the police officer had the audacity to say that to Bobby and get in his face.”
That’s when Nathan, Bobby and their teammates knew this would be no ordinary high school basketball game.
The taunts started early and came often from hecklers in the student section.
P.F. Chang’s, they said. 10 can’t see. 10 plays chess.
“I guess a stereotype of Asians is we play chess,” says Nathan, who was the only Asian-American on the court that day. “I didn't really understand that one.”
Bobby, the lone African-American to play in the game, was bombarded by his own barrage of racially charged barbs.
Bobby sells crack, they said. Bobby smokes meth. Bobby’s on welfare. Bobby can’t read.
“If they had just done a little homework, they would have known that I obviously can read because I'm going to an Ivy League school,” says Bobby, who’s now a freshman on the football team at Dartmouth College.
But these weren’t just stray strains of hatred from a few ignorant fans, like the ones at Oak Hills. Rather, these were coordinated chants carried by the vast majority of Elder’s student section, regardless of race.
“The fact that the African-Americans were able to chant this stuff at Bobby and not do anything about it blew me away,” Nathan says.
Elder’s players, coaches and officials let it stand, as well. So, too, did the referees.
St. X’s student section did its part to support its squad with competing chants of “You are racist” at Elder’s offenders.
“Then the Elder student section came back at our student section,” Bobby recounts, “saying, ‘You guys are faggots.’”
“At the moment, I didn't really think much of it,” Nathan says, “because when I'm playing, I'm not focusing really on the student section or anything.”
Bobby, though, couldn’t stay quiet amid that antagonism. When he subbed out to join Nathan on the bench, he came off the court yelling at then-St. X head coach Jimmy Lallathin.
“Coach, this is more than just a game now,” Bobby implored. “They're on some racist stuff.”
At the time, Coach didn’t pay Bobby’s entreaties much mind. He was as caught up in—and blinded by—the passion of the game itself as Nathan had been before his first breather.
Nathan, though, knew something was amiss, and kept an ear out for it when he went back in.
“I started listening,” Nathan says, “and I was just blown away.”
At the next timeout, Nathan voiced his concerns in the huddle.
“Coach, you’ve got to listen to this stuff they're chanting,” he said. “This is getting out of hand.”
With two of his starters now put off, Coach Lallathin shared his concerns with Elder’s staff. But the vitriol persisted, with clear words and full throats, into the third quarter, when the home fans added Coach Lallathin to their verbal hit list.
One of St. X’s assistant coaches, Halsey Mabry (who’s African-American), was ready to take matters into his own hands.
“For you two, I'm willing to go up into the stands and punch one of them,” Coach Mabry told them, “because I grew up with the same stuff and I'm not going to let this come onto you.”
“Bobby and I loved it a lot because it shows that the whole team and the whole staff was behind us through it all,” Nathan says.
Before Coach Mabry could act on those intentions, Coach Lallathin threatened to pull his team off the floor if the nasty chants persisted. That got Elder’s administrators to take action, though the damage had already been done. A shaken St. X squad wound up losing big, 67-46.
“I was just shellshocked,” Nathan says. “I grew up playing basketball against a lot of those kids on the basketball team [at Elder]. I was friends with some of them, and I just really couldn't believe that they were willing to even say that in front of a sold-out crowd and just continue it on.”
The gravity of what had happened in that gym didn’t really hit Nathan until he walked onto the floor after the game. He saw his mom “broken down in tears, just bawling her eyes out in the middle of the court” as she told her son about the times that she, too, had been harassed for being Asian.
That night, Nathan was laying in his room when his mom walked in, once again bawling.
“I'm so sorry I had to make you Asian,” she told him. “I never wanted this.”
“That hit me hard,” Nathan says. “I was, like, my mom should never be ashamed of what she made or who I am.”
That’s when he knew things had gone too far.
Jeremy Lin has faced many of the same in-game epithets that Nathan has. There were occasional racist remarks from the stands during his days playing for Palo Alto High School in the Bay Area, but the worst came when Jeremy was at Harvard. As a senior for the Crimson, he heard that kind of hatred first-hand from an opposing player on the court, in the midst of a critical Ivy League game at Cornell.
“He was repeatedly calling me a chink,” Jeremy says. “His teammates could hear it. The refs could hear it. My teammates were about to fight him.”
Jeremy, meanwhile, couldn’t quite keep his composure. While he finished with a game-high 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting (7-of-8 on free throws), he dished out just one assist against eight turnovers as the Crimson crumbled at Cornell, 86-50.
“It put me off a lot just because if it's someone from the crowd, that's one thing,” he says. “When it's coming from another player and he's doing it so openly in front of his teammates who had nothing to say, in front of the refs, who did absolutely nothing about it, it was just absolutely disgusting.”
As far as Nathan and Bobby were concerned, Elder’s response to the incidents from that fateful day in February left much to be desired.
Immediately after the game, some parents of Elder’s students came up to them to apologize for their children’s hateful words. A week and a half later, the two schools held a lunchtime meeting at St. X attended by basketball and football players, along with student council members from both sides. But to the offended parties, those gestures largely rang empty.
“I truly don't believe [the meeting] would have happened had it not received news attention, parents being upset about it,” Bobby says. “[But] I feel like most of the responsible parties weren't even there.”
Indeed, the incident became headline fodder for media outlets around Cincinnati. But as February moved into March 2018, the memory of that day seemed to fade. The police officer who had confronted Bobby was ultimately reprimanded. Beyond that, little else seemed to change.
The Bombers finished the season, 17-8 overall, as Division I sectional runners-up. In May 2018, Coach Lallathin resigned from St. X to later join the coaching staff at Oak Hills. And in June 2018, Bobby walked at graduation before moving on to Dartmouth.
Nathan and Bobby show off some of their souvenirs in Atlanta. (Courtesy of P.F. Chang's)
In the fall of 2018, Nathan returned to St. X to captain the basketball team. Even though Bobby and Coach Lallathin were gone, Nathan couldn’t quite shake the memory of what had happened at Elder.
Rather than let that pain control him, he decided to empower himself with it. He told his mom he wanted to customize his sneakers for the upcoming season with the P.F. Chang’s logo, to take ownership of that taunt away from his tormentors.
In October 2018, Susan reached out to the Chinese restaurant chain to request permission to use its logo. That set in motion what would become a “magical moment” for Nathan and Bobby.
“As soon as we heard that, we were, like, ‘Wow, what a story,'" says Mike Gervais, P.F. Chang’s regional vice president of operations, “and what honorable young men to stand up that way with integrity, and stand up for yourself without going down some ridiculous path.”
Word of the incident—and Nathan’s inspiring response to it—spread to the P.F. Chang’s marketing department, which rustled up some contacts in the sports world, who then got ahold of Jeremy Lin’s business team.
When Jeremy caught wind of Nathan and Bobby’s situation, he “wasn’t surprised.”
“I'm used to this now sadly,” Jeremy says. “Sadly, I've come to kind of expect it.”
But beyond that resignation, Jeremy identified with Nathan’s decision to repurpose the P.F. Chang’s put-down in a positive way.
“That's been something for me as well where, in the past, it's been, like, ‘Oh, you think I'm this or that, or you call me this or that,’” Jeremy says. “I'm going to turn that negative energy and use it as fuel and motivation.”
Nathan connects with Jeremy at State Farm Arena. (Courtesy of P.F. Chang's)
That kind of harassment has largely subsided for Jeremy since he entered the NBA in 2010, though it hasn’t vanished entirely.
“College games, you have a lot of student sections where everyone gets drunk and saying whatever,” he says, “versus pro games, you get a little bit more of a refined crowd.”
In 2013, months after “Linsanity” took the world by storm, he established the Jeremy Lin Foundation, which has since come up with an anti-bullying curriculum for young students through EverFi’s online education. His foundation has also offered scholarships and basketball camps to kids in need, while Jeremy has personally written letters and autographed photos for those who have shared their stories with him.
“The thing I always say is if you allow them to throw you off your track and get distracted and get overly angry or upset, then they've won,” Jeremy says. “That's their goal. So make sure that you don't compound their mistake by adding your mistake onto it. If you learn how to deal with it the right way, you can use it as a positive for yourself and you can actually better yourself and motivate yourself, and inspire yourself through something that they've meant to be harmful for you.”
So when Jeremy’s business team approached him with the chance to help Nathan and Bobby, he didn’t hesitate.
“They shared it with me and they were, like, ‘Do you want to do something about it? This is a cool opportunity,’” Jeremy recalls. “And we were, like, ‘Oh, we should definitely do something and get involved.’”
Within 24 hours, word got back to Mike and his colleagues at P.F. Chang’s that Jeremy was in. All they had to do was figure out a date that would work for everyone.
Meanwhile, Nathan’s mom kept him in the dark.
“My whole family hid it from me,” he says. “They never told me I was going anywhere. They just said, we might go on a work trip somewhere, and every time I asked where, they said we're still deciding.”
It wasn’t until a few weeks before the actual trip that Nathan’s mom started sharing details with him.
“I didn't really know how to respond to it because I was like, I can't believe this is going that far,” he says. “This is going to be just unbelievable.”
Bobby and Nathan sit courtside during pregame warmups at State Farm Arena. (Courtesy of P.F. Chang's)
What Nathan calls “the best weekend ever” began before he and Bobby landed in Atlanta with their families for the experience of a lifetime.
On Friday, January 11, Nathan returned to Elder for a road game as both the Greater Catholic League’s top scorer, and St. X’s captain and emotional leader.
“There's no way I'm letting us lose this game,” Nathan told his coach, Brian Kellett. “This game means so much to me. I'm not going to let this team beat us.”
Though the Panthers bottled him up defensively, Nathan guided St. X to a resounding 48-33 win, as much with his passing (four assists to go with seven points) as his passion.
“My coach said after the game he thought I had the best game of the season for myself so far,” Nathan says, “because I led with such positivity and I didn't let anything of last year affect me.”
Nor were there any disparaging chants for him to block out, thanks to initiatives taken by the Greater Catholic League to curb offensive speech from student sections. Whenever Nathan touched the ball, the student section that once harassed him now fell silent.
The next day, victory in hand, Nathan and his family flew from Cincinnati to Atlanta. That Saturday night, they gathered with Bobby—who had flown in from New Hampshire—and his family at P.F. Chang’s, where Jeremy popped in to surprise his visitors.
“It just seemed like they were much more adultish and mature than I was when I was their age,” Jeremy says.
“Just sitting across from Jeremy was something else because, since everything has happened with Linsanity, I had followed him,” Nathan says. “As an Asian basketball player, that's what we do. We just followed him.”
“Large individuals with large platforms like Jeremy Lin definitely help to affect change,” Bobby says. “And it means a lot that he's willing to stand up for things such as racism and bullying.”
Nathan and Bobby with Jeremy at State Farm Arena. (Courtesy of P.F. Chang's)
Jeremy rarely breaks his pregame routine, even for family and friends. But on that Sunday in January, with Bobby and Nathan watching warmups from courtside seats and high-fiving Hawks players in the tunnel at State Farm Arena, Jeremy made an exception so he could share a word, pose for photos and give his guests signed No. 7 Lin jerseys.
“Even though other people may be hating from the outside, I wanted them to know that I'll always be supportive,” Jeremy says.
“The fact that he did that for us, and went out of his way to come and talk to us and take pictures with us,” Nathan says, “that was amazing.”
“I got to crack some jokes about Dartmouth beating Harvard last night in basketball, so that was pretty cool,” Bobby says. “But yeah, he's a real cool dude. I enjoyed talking to him and I'm just so grateful for him and this experience.”
Once Jeremy returned to his pregame ritual, Mike and his colleagues from P.F. Chang’s presented Bobby and Nathan with another gift: pairs of James Harden’s latest signature sneaker from adidas. Bobby got his in plain white, per his request.
Nathan, on the other hand, opened up his box to find a bright red pair of Hardens with Jeremy’s signature on the front, and the P.F. Chang’s logo emblazoned on each side by sneaker artist Salvador Amezcua, better known as “Kickstradomis.”
Nathan shows off his customized adidas Harden Vol. 3 sneakers. (Courtesy of P.F. Chang's)
“The fact that [Salvador] took time out of his day to make that for someone he doesn't even know just meant so much to me,” Nathan says. “And he did such an amazing job on them, and I just can't wait to show them off.”
Nathan plans to wear his customized Hardens for one game and one game only: February 1, for his senior night at St. X’s Berning Gym, against Elder.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.